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Opera Festival Review:
Beaune International Festival of Baroque Music
Festival de Radio France and Montpellier

 

By Joel Kasow


PARIS, 6 September 2002 - Visits to Beaune's International Festival of Baroque Music on two successive weekends in July brought unalloyed pleasure. Christophe Rousset's annual excursion into lesser-known Handelian realms this year focussed on Arianna in Creta. The opera was composed in 1734, ten years after the masterpieces Cesare, Rodelinda and Tamerlano, one year after Orlando, to be followed by Ariodante and Alcina. While not possessed of as many magical (in all senses of the word) moments as any of those works, Arianna is skillfully crafted: the orchestration is sumptuous, the new virtuoso castrato who sang Teseo was given seven arias in which to display his considerable talents, and some of the tunes are memorable. Sandrine Piau in the title role (deprived of her final aria) once again showed that she has few equals in this domain, able to float the lines of her languishing arias but possessing the requisite fireworks for the aria closing Act One. Kristina Hammarström's Teseo started off brilliantly, but seemed to have run out of steam in the middle of Act Two, recovering for her last aria in which she defeats the minotaur. Ewa Wolak's cavernous tones as the unfortunate Carilda lacked femininity, while Anna-Lise Sollied's soft-toned Alceste (a role later rewritten for tenor) was the most committed singing I have ever heard from her. Ann Hallenberg's expressive face and brilliant voice suited the role of Tauride, able to ride the full orchestra. Les Talens Lyriques occasionally lacked the precision we have come to expect, but two performances a month earlier probably meant that rehearsals were kept to a minimum.

A week later, Vivaldi's Olimpiade took the stage, something of a rehearsal for upcoming recording sessions (part of Opus 111's complete Vivaldi project). Because the opera is quite long, it was decided for purposes of the concert to replace all the secco recitative by a spoken narration, so that we were able to hear all the arias and even the accompanied recitatives. The libretto is based on Metastasio, with 21 arias (3 apiece, except Alcandro who gets two and Aristea four) and one duet. The orchestration is strings, basso continuo and two horns, with Rinaldo Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano revelling in the sound they could produce. One might question Alessandrini's galumphing ritardandi at the end of each aria, but that is my sole quibble. The soloists were variable, Sara Mingardo (Licida) taking a while to warm up but producing her familiar golden contralto sound in the second and third acts. Roberta Invernizzi's biting delivery of every one of Megacles's utterances remains etched on my memory, lacking only fullness of tone at the bottom of her range. Sonia Prina's heroine, Aristea, over-aspirated her coloratura, but the dark quality of her mezzo is unusual. The high soprano of Laura Giordano (Aminta) has a limited palette, while Mariana Kulikova's Argene lacked accuracy. The two basses, Riccardo Novaro (Clistene) and Sergio Foresti (Alcandro), possessed the wherewithal to do justice to Vivaldi's not always simple writing. The evening was successful to the point that I am awaiting the recording (scheduled for the autumn).

Vivica Genaux
Vivica Genaux in Rinaldo


The Festival de Radio France and Montpellier is now in the position to include fully-staged works among their offerings, thanks to the integration of the Orchestra and Opera into a single organization of which René Koering is the director. Koering's eclectic tastes have always informed the Festival's choices, this year falling on Hary Janos, La Donna del Lago, the world premiere of Offenbach's Rheinnixen and Rinaldo. I do not know who chose Nigel Lowery as producer-designer for the Handel, but my one single exposure to his work (Fliegende Holländer several years ago in Amsterdam) was sufficiently catastrophic that I find it difficult to believe he can still find work. Rinaldo was Handel's spectacular introduction to London, the story extracted from Tasso and showing the Crusaders attacking Jerusalem. Lowery's notion was to transpose this into a contemporary setting, so that we saw dolls strewn around, torn to pieces by Armida and Argante, Rinaldo sporting a machine gun, but all treated in a very joky fashion as was just about everything in the work. I never thought I would have a good word to say about Peter Sellars, but his staging of Giulio Cesare did at least have the virtue of taking everything seriously, even the more light-hearted moments, thereby underlining the drama of today while contrasting it with that of another era. Did René Jacobs truly condone such goings-on; there are surely more convincing ways of sustaining audience interest, particularly in light of the major news event the day of the performance: the bombing of the cafeteria at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Almirena sings "Lascia ch'io piango" sporting a mermaid's fishtail, while several other of her arias had her surrounded by a group of bobby-soxed dancers engaging in frenzied, pseudo-Sellars semaphoring. The sign language was omnipresent, other performers also required to expend their much-needed energy on such puerilities. Lowery's sets and costumes were on the same infantile level, while his "gags" (inspiring much laughter from the audience, alongside much groaning) were barely worthy of Benny Hill. Fortunately the musical level offered compensation, the execution stylish and well-sung. René Jacobs and the Freiburger Barockorchester kept everything moving, while it was clear that the participants were giving their all. Vivica Genaux in the title role was unkindly treated by the French press, primarily for lack of conviction in her slow arias, but it must have been difficult to believe in Lowery's notions. Miah Persson (Almirena) and Inga Kalnar (Armida) were both revelations, the latter not only for her fiery utterances but also the passion she brought to her lament near the end of Act Two. Countertenors Lawrence Zazzo (Goffredo) and Christophe Dumaux (Eustazio) demonstrated their art while also carrying on as Lowery wished. Dominique Visse's cameo as the Mago Cristiano fit smoothly into the proceedings. James Rutherford (Argante), the only low voice of the evening, was not entirely up to the writing of the part, also lacking dramatic credibility. The audio element will be preserved by Harmonia Mundi.

For reviews of other performances at the Festival de Radio France et Montpellier (Rossini's Donna del Lago and the world premiere of Offenbach's Rheinnixen), see the Diary of July 2002.



Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com..

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